Books

More Than Bjork: A Journey Through Iceland's Pop Music History

Blue Eyed Pop includes a trove of candid band shots, live performance photos and more that would otherwise go unseen by anyone outside of Iceland.


Blue Eyed Pop: A History of Popular Music In Iceland

Publisher: Sögur útgáfa
Length: 224 pages
Author: Dr. Gunni
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-01
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Iceland is mythical place to outsiders, a foreign body that immediately conjures a landscape beset by picturesque scenes that are immortalized on Tumblr. Certainly, there’s a disconnect between the real and the imaginary in our minds. Most of us have never been and will never go to Iceland, but it’s still a place we wander to tangentially for peace and a model ideal living (their crime rate hovers near zero).

If we’re being honest, however, about 90 percent of our microscopic view of Icelandic music comes from two main sources: Bjork and Sigur Ros. Both artists consistently bring an intensity and theatricality that is sorely missing from American music. America (where I'm from) has artists that radiate faux-pop theatricality; Lady Gaga, for example, springs to mind. And it has other artists that possess the genuine talent for moving something deep within your soul; transgender artist Antony and Michael Gira’s Swans certainly rub up against the boundaries of emotional resonance in an affecting manner. But there’s nothing quite as intense or exacting as Bjork in a swan dress, in all seriousness, or a Sigur Ros coda that won’t stop building.

It would seem, then, that Iceland is imbued with that sense of mystique from the beginnings of its popular music. Well, not so much, as it turns out.

As history would have it and as Dr. Gunni details in Blue Eyed Pop, one of the first (if not the first) books to detail the pop music history of Iceland, Iceland’s humble pop beginnings sound just like everybody else’s. Icelanders' influences are the same as American's (e.g., big band, Elvis Presley, The Beatles), their music is achingly similar to their influential styles, and their national trends are reminiscent of America's, too.

Gunni begins at the birth of popular music in Iceland, the influence and creation of big band, jazz, and swing groups that offer their take on standards from around the Western world with one major difference, of course: Icelandic lyrics. The same holds true for '60s-era musicians. With the arrival of Beatlemania, Icelandic bands formed and dissolved at a rapid pace in an effort to translate the Western-influx of pop to the massive island, population 320,000. While the tales of these individual bands are difficult to cling to as unique identities, Gunni has unearthed a trove of incredible images that plaster the pages with candid band shots, live performance pictures, and unique band photos that otherwise would go unseen -- by outsiders, anyway.

The strength of Gunni’s text lies in two areas: first, in the captured scenes and photographs that maximize the reading experience and, second, in the later chapters where the most well-known artists are delved into. Earlier chapters lack the luster and appeal for readers who may be looking for a window into Iceland’s past musical heritage. Gunni details them as perfunctory passages that are easy to glean over and hard to remember. (The one high-point is the similarity of song translations; from a linguistic view, comparing the Icelandic words with the English translations Gunni supplies is a fun exercise.)

As much as Gunni’s work serves as an important and boundary-crossing work, it falls flat tonally in more than a few places. Muddling through Icelandic crooners and singers is interesting enough from a historical perspective, but it also demands a bit of investment in the subject matter on the reader’s part. Unfortunately, Gunni doesn’t give us much in that territory, letting the images and cultural movements speak more for themselves than his authorial style.

Skipping ahead to later chapters, there are no real revelations found in the dissection of the most popular Icelandic musicians. Some of the lesser known acts (outside of Iceland, anyways), such as Oxsma’ and SSSol’, found their fair share of notoriety while belonging to certain sub-genres of music. And the concert-going habits of Icelanders—re: Country Balls, a concert that Gunni wittingly describes as a setting to “drink, fight, and find your damnedest to find someone to multiply with in the countryside"—are similar in more than a few ways to our modern concert festivals.

Where, the heft of Blue Eyed Pop picks up, of course is with the Icelandic musicians we’ve all come to know. Plenty of pages are devoted to The Sugarcubes and Bjork’s travails and records, and the boom and promise of post-Bjork rock takes on a life of its own. Gunni feels more invested in this area of musical history, describing it all with a bit more authorial flair, adding in some English-language colloquialisms along the way. But, again, at the core, Blue Eyed Pop exists in its own stilted realm of rock history, minus all the antics and nuance that make a book like Simon Reynold’s Energy Flash such an exhilarating read.

There’s something to be said for an undertaking of this manner, and Gunni deserves accolades for writing what will likely be the seminal Icelandic music history book for some time. It’s audience, I’m afraid, is inherently niche. The best advice for those interested in Iceland and Icelandic music beyond the typical Western exposure, is to pick up Blue Eyed Pop. However, if you’ve come this far in musical learnings without it, there is no need to alter the course now.

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